Nation on alert as bushfires spread, Gillard warns NSW residents to be vigilant

Fast-moving fire takes properties in central Victoria as NSW battles 135 blazes

08 January 2013

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Australia —  DOZENS of homes remained under threat late today as NSW firefighters battled 135 blazes in 40-plus temperatures and often “catastrophic” conditions, and a fast-moving fire in central Victoria has destroyed at least two properties.

Fuelled by soaring temperatures and powerful winds, the worst fires were in the south of NSW near Cooma, Nowra, Bega and Wagga Wagga.

In Victoria, at least two properties have been burnt out by a bushfire in the area of Chepstowe.

A Country Fire Authority offical said two homes had been impacted by fire in the Chepstowe area due to the fast-moving grassfire but authorities were still trying to determine the extent of the damage.

The fire is about 500hectares in size, creating spot fires 1km ahead and is out of control and heading towards Carngham, the CFA said.

An emergency warning was issued this afternoon for the Chepstowe district, as the fire burnt through the area around the Beaufort-Carngham and Station Lane intersection.

Callers to local radio said as many as 30 homes in Station Lane, Chepstowe, may have been hit by the fire.

Although 40 fires in NSW remained uncontained, by mid-afternoon today there had been no reports of loss of life or homes as residents heeded dire warnings from authorities.

“We have been very fortunate,” said Rural Fire Services (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who praised the “extraordinary” firefighting effort taking place in “dirty, hot difficult conditions”.

Hundreds of firefighters were in the field, with thousands more on standby, as temperatures climbed and the fires, fanned by winds over 70 km/h, burned more than 26,000 hectares of grass, scrub and bushland.

Thirty homes were threatened by a fire 12km east of Cooma – 20 in the Kybeyan Valley and 10 around Mount Forest Road in the Cooma-Monaro area.

A fire on the south coast at Brogo, near Bega, was expected to affect isolated properties north of Eagles Nest Road.

“We just looked at each other and said ‘We’re leaving’,” Brogo resident Hallie Fernandez-Markov said from the town of Cobargo, where she was staying with friends after evacuating her guest house.

“It’s high winds now, it’s really blowy,” she said of conditions, adding that temperatures were searing as she drove out along the heavily forested road as firetrucks rushed in to counter the blaze.

There has been some respite in the Bega area, after temperatures eased to the mid-20s following a southerly wind change just after 2pm.

An emergency bushfire warning was issued for the township of Tarcutta, in southwest NSW, where the fire front was about 3km from properties shortly before 1pm.

Residents were being urged to “shelter in place” as it approached, as it was too late to leave, and parts of the Hume Highway were closed.

Residents from Tarcutta gathered at a local club this afternoon after the bushfire cut off their planned escape route.

“It is very close to the township,” Tarcutta RSL and Citizens Club director Ngharie McCallum said. “The town is full of smoke. “It’s been so hot and dry today it’s like a furnace.”

She said there had been plans to evacuate before residents received updated information not to flee the area.

Eva Toth, who owns the Tarcutta Halfway Motor Inn, was running between her car and office, packing items including her computer and insurance paperwork.

“The wind has now changed and now we’re getting all the smoke,” she said.

“It’s absolutely a burning scorcher.

“It’s like someone put the hair dryer on your face.”

Other fires at an “emergency” alert level were at Oura, Mates Gully and Munyabla, near Wagga Wagga, and Narrandera, southwest of Wagga.

The Munyabla fire was heading towards the township of Henty, between Albury and Wagga.

A fire at Dean’s Gap in the Shoalhaven was heading east towards the Princes Highway and posing a potential threat to the seaside resort of Sussex Inlet.

Up to 90 per cent of NSW was in severe danger, with conditions officially described as catastrophic in the Illawarra, Shoalhaven, the Southern Ranges, the northern and eastern Riverina and southern parts of the lower Central West Plains.

NSW Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher said fears of extreme weather – predicted to create one of the worst fire danger days in NSW history – had come to pass.

“There was a hope that something would abate this weather condition as it moves across NSW, but the fact is that it has not,” he told reporters in Sydney.

A total fire ban was in place across NSW, with temperatures predicted to hit 45 degrees in the state’s far west and 43 degrees in Sydney – the third highest mark on record.

All NSW national parks, reserves and state forests were closed to the public due to the fire risk, while the total fire ban has been extended into tomorrow.

Today’s rise in temperature was often dramatic.

Along NSW’s south coast temperatures climbed this morning by an average of two degrees every 30 minutes.

In the town of Bega, the temperature rose almost 15 degrees in an hour, going from 23 degrees at 8am (AEDT) to 37.8 degrees at 9am.

Bega then became the first town in the state to hit 40 degrees, which it did at 11.30am (AEDT).

“It’s never been that hot, that early, in Bega,” said Julie Evans, from the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM).

But after a cool change hit Bega this afternoon, the temperature dropped to the mid-20s.

“It’s a relief,” Michael Clunie, who works for Forests NSW, said of the southerly. “People were worried about the whole area.”

Sydney temperatures trailed the rest of the state but were expected to peak at 43C in the afternoon, and hover around the 30 degree mark for most of the evening before a change tomorrow morning.

“Ahead of the cool change, quite warm and very gusty wind conditions are expected,” said Ms Evans.

The ACT also imposed a total fire ban as firefighters mopped up a forest fire burning in the territory’s south.

In Tasmania, more communities in the path of a destructive bushfire in the state’s southeast were told it was too late for people to leave.

The Tasman Peninsula blaze is threatening the small bayside towns of Eaglehawk Neck, Pirates Bay and Doo Town.

Residents were earlier advised to leave, but the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) says now they should head to the Eaglehawk Neck jetty or beach.

Winds with gusts of up to 70km/h are fanning the fire, which has already destroyed more than 100 properties.

“Currently we’ve got embers and spotting and ash blowing into the Eaglehawk Neck, Pirates Bay, Doo Town area,” TFS chief officer Mike Brown told reporters.

“We’ve been telling people for a number of hours now there was potential for that and they should consider relocating.

“It’s now too late for that.”

Around 40 bushfires continue to burn across the state, with uncontrolled blazes at Montumana in the northwest and Lake Repulse in the Derwent Valley also causing concern.

In Victoria, a large bushfire in the state’s southwest was expected to continue burning out of control through tomorrow.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said northeastern Victoria was experiencing wind speeds of up to 60km/h and temperatures reaching the low 40s.

“It is serious fire weather in northern Victoria, it is very serious fire weather in southern NSW.

“Fires that do start will run hard, fast and be very difficult to control,” he said.

He said Victorian fire crews would be positioned at Wodonga and Wangaratta to help respond to fires in southern NSW if required as well as blazes in northeastern Victoria, including Corryong.

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